How I Devised My Sri Lanka Backpacking Itinerary

For me the hardest part of planning a backpacking trip around a country is the first part; the getting started part. The part where you know you want to see all the highlights but have done so little research that you don’t even know what the highlights are yet.
This is also the most exciting part of planning an itinerary because the whole country is yours for the taking.

how i devised my sri lanka itinerary

Taking a stroll around Kandy Lake, Sri Lanka

After Toni and I had booked our flights to Colombo we just had to work out how to spend the 22 full days we would have in Sri Lanka, doing and seeing as much as possible.

Though I’m no fan of Lonely Planet for accommodation or restaurants I do find it useful for getting basic information about modes of transport and what to visit where.

Toni and I don’t plan trips together. Ever!
Either I do it or (more often) he does it. We’re the same in the kitchen: if one is cooking the other stays out of the way. Too many cooks… and all that.

For the Sri Lanka trip it was my turn.
I started with the basics: what did I actually want to do and see in Sri Lanka? Toni had only one stipulation: he wanted to spend a week at the beach.

Okay so we had beach on the list.

I fancied seeing historical ruins, beautiful lush green landscape and maybe wild elephants (I wasn’t interested in going to any elephant zoo to ride on them or bribe mahouts for photos). We wanted to go on the famous train journey through the tea plantations. And whale watching could be pretty incredible…

As I read through the highlights of Sri Lanka, according to the guide books, my list began to grow.

how i devised my sri lanka itinerary 01

Tackling the Sri Lanka Itinerary

We knew our start point and end point as we were bound by our flights. But we weren’t especially interested in visiting either Colombo or Negombo, the usual stop-over points close to the airport.

The more I read, the more an itinerary began to take shape. I decided that we’d finish at the beaches where we could relax after wearing ourselves out with fast-paced sightseeing in other areas.

Due to the relative smallness of the country we would be able to visit many places without spending whole days travelling.

We knew we would try to use public transport and try to avoid the expense of hiring drivers wherever possible.

Looking back, my Sri Lanka itinerary version 1 was quite elaborate. But perfectly doable, I thought at the time. I hadn’t taken into account the long travel times despite the relatively short distances, nor our own, if not laziness, then certainly age. We’re not 20-something backpackers anymore, we’re 30-something backpackers. Unfortunately we just don’t have the same energy. (I’m sure that you 40-something backpackers are reading this thinking just wait!)

Ambitious Plans

The first itinerary I made had us staying one night in Negombo after arriving at the airport. Then the next day early train to Kandy. Visiting Kandy all that day and travelling the same night to Dambulla where we would sleep.

The next day visiting Dambulla Cave Temples, travelling to Sigiriya and climbing the rock and then sleeping overnight in Sigiriya or Habarana.

The next day would be a visit to the Polonnaruwa ruins and an afternoon safari at Minneriya or one of the other nearby national parks.

The next day we would travel early to Anuradhapura and visit the ruins. We would stay two nights in Anuradhapura and the second day would be a visit to Mihintale ruins.

(Think we would be ruined-out by this time).

Then we would take an early train from Anuradhapura to Trincomalee and take a bus or tuk tuk to either Uppuveli or Nilaveli beaches.

After one full day on the beach we would travel down the east coast by bus stopping at Marble Beach and stay there over night.

We would continue travelling down to Batticaloa where were would stay at Pasikudah Beach for one day. Then we would take a bus to Arugam Bay where we would stay for a couple of nights for a bit of beach and nature sightseeing.

Then we would travel inland to Badulla, the start of the hill country. At Badulla I fancied seeing the impressive Dunhinda Waterfall.

After one night in Badulla we would make a loop of the hill country using train and bus. We would stay a day or two in Ella, continue to Haputale for a day. Then on to Horton Plains, Adam’s Peak, Nuwara Eliya and back to Ella.

Then we would go down to Udawalawe National Park where we’d do a couple of nights camping and safaris in the national park.

Then finally down to the beaches: Tangalle, Mirissa and Unawatuna: a day or two at each. From Unawatuna we would visit Galle. Finally we’d take the train from Galle to Colombo to head back to the airport…

All in 22 days.

Wow, I bet you’re dizzy just reading this, never mind doing it!

By the time I totted all this up and started looking at transport distances and timetables I was on about 35 days!

I had to start to whittle the itinerary down. Anuradhapura was the first to go: it consumed 2 full days and we didn’t need to visit two ancient capitals. People that had visited both Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura unanimously recommended the former. So Polonnaruwa it was.

Read about my experience at Polonnaruwa here and here.

Next I axed Udawalawe after getting a quote from Master Campers of about $800US per person for two nights. For CAMPING!

The hill country got really condensed. Nuwara Eliya went first: no one ever actually seems to do anything there other than drink tea, visit tea factories and exclaim over the Britishness of the place. I can do that in Britain.

Horton Plains went due to expense and time. I was sorry to see Badulla go but it had nothing more to offer than the waterfall.

Then I had to whittle the east down.

By the time we were ready to leave for our trip I was on Sri Lanka itinerary version 3 and I did have version 4 in mind should we make changes on the go.

And we did make changes on the go. You can read the actual live Sri Lanka itinerary here, complete with timings and costs.

And if you have any questions about preparing your Sri Lanka itinerary, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

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About the Author: Based in Mallorca, obsessed with the world and have a lot to say about both... Step into my shoes and join me on a journey...

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  1. susan sykes says:

    Very interesting how you planned your trip, they all have to be workable around the flights, Look forward to reading the posts

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